On Joyce Carol Oates Reading at NYU

by Liz Wood

By way of introduction, Jonathan Safran Foer called out his former teacher Joyce Carol Oates on the harsher things she’d said about his writing.

They were the exact kind of too-honest words that a writing student remembers for years — cutting in ways you have to tell yourself will help you, really, in the long run.

Knife-like criticisms aside, Foer credited Oates with the realization that he even had a thing that could be called a voice worth writing. And the night was in some ways a celebration of her teaching career and current position as Distinguished Writer in Residence at the NYU Creative Writing Program, where Foer teaches. But more than her career, Oates was celebrated by her colleagues and the scores of fans crowding the NYU Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House for her ability to construct voices so compelling they can draw you in whether or not you want to relate to the sometimes disturbed, sometimes haunting, characters she creates.

Joyce Carol Oates read from two pieces, beginning with a segment from a memoir she is currently writing. Reflecting on the memoir project, Oates gave a few statements that would make anyone bet she’d be a great teacher — including the idea that memoir’s special difficulty lies in finding the tone for the heart’s voice that drives it, an almost spiritual tone that replaces a novel’s character study (because how can you ever really accomplish a character study of yourself without sounding like a pompous jerk or a total joke). The section she read entered a reflection on her childhood and family, the murder of a grandfather and the event’s development into a family secret. Pieces of personal history Oates acknowledged sometimes find their way into her fiction–

Oates said she sometimes indulges the fantasy that through writing about a fictional mystery, criminal or psychological, a writer can solve the mystery of her own life.

For her second reading, Oates chose a story that explored parallel circumstance to her memoir excerpt while inhabiting an entirely different register. She fully inhabited the podium as she read “Toad Baby,” a story from her most recent collection, HIGH CRIME AREA, taking the voice of a young woman in a family irrevocably broken by the death of its patriarch, constructing a dynamic so unbalanced any attempts to summarize would do it no justice. In total Oatesian fashion the story turned the cozy molding-bordered living room that is the Lillian Vern House into a wave of gasps and shudders. And then Oates broke with the voice, looked up from the work and returned to her elegant self.

The NYU Creative Writing Program Reading Series has some incredible fiction writers and poets scheduled to read this spring–Gary Shteyngart, Rachel Kushner, Dan Chiasson and Lydia Davis are just a few. Check out the full list here/

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